Database Debacles

By Larry Barrett Print this article Print

After two humiliating technology failures, six major news services are disbanding VNS, a consortium formed to count votes and conduct Election Day surveys. How could the system have been overhauled before disaster struck twice?

Database Debacles

As part of the effort, voting databases developed over a span of more than 30 years were to be consolidated into one. That's where the rubber never met the road.

"There were a lot of IT issues here that I'm not sure Battelle was qualified to handle," Lenski says. "They routinely missed deadlines for delivering the different components for testing."

The databases which housed the election results and local demographics for more than 4,600 precincts were running on both IBM's DB2 and a version of Oracle 7. They were to be consolidated into Oracle 8i database software.

"This caused all kinds of problems," one source close to VNS says. "You're not only talking about a clash in culture and expertise but you're also talking about trying to create places for data to fit that just aren't there."

For example, participants say the new system wasn't able to compare previous election results. If a network analyst wanted to know how independent voters in a particularly county were voting compared to the 1996 or 2000 election, the system couldn't deliver the data quickly, if at all.

"The fields just didn't match up," one network analyst says.

Also, traditionally Democratic precincts scattered throughout the country were, according to the flawed exit polling figures, showing unprecedented strength for Republican candidates. And vice versa.

An estimation model, which was developed by longtime VNS staffers, was implemented by Battelle in time for the election. But it wasn't sufficiently tested.

"We had absolutely no confidence in the numbers we were getting from the estimation model," says one CNN analyst.

CNN, sensing doom, partnered with Edison Media Research as an alternative to the VNS data. Its "RealVote" system gathered exit-polling data from 10 states to beef up CNN's analysis as the raw vote totals trickled in. ABC, NBC and Fox News all either sent reporters out to some of the precincts or conducted telephone polls throughout the day to bolster their broadcasts.

The dissolution of VNS leaves the networks with less than 51 weeks to develop an alternative before the Iowa caucuses—the start of the 2004 presidential campaign.

This article was originally published on 2003-01-13
Senior Writer
Larry, of San Carlos, Calif., was a senior writer and editor at CNet, writing analysis, breaking news and opinion stories. He was technology reporter at the San Jose Business Journal from 1996-1997. He graduated with a B.A. from San Jose State University where he was also executive editor of the daily student newspaper.
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